Diego against the world

A visual documentation of flying tackles and attempted missions to conquer the unstoppable Diego Maradona (1979-1994). But how many of them have actually succeeded ? Words by Dr. Subhashis Biswas.

He would dance with the devil when the devil looks into his eyes. He would drink with the butcher when the butcher has just finished mincing the meat. He would act on the stage as if the script is written for him, by him. He is Diego Armando Maradona.

A world where the football plays a significant role in gaining control over the accolade section of human mind, here is a magician that emerged from rugged streets of Buenos Aires and controlled the accolade section of human mind alright, all over the world. Some Claudio Gentile would sit on his drawing room sofa and drink finest Italian wine and remember each of 23 tackles he made to Diego in their match against Argentina in 1982 world cup, but when his glass of wine becomes empty, he would say “Saluda el Campion”.

Human mind is a strange thing, and more so if it is the mind of Diego Maradona. He is advancing with the ball; say from left side of the field around the centre line. He dodges past one, shields the vacant air with a sharp move and a with a little tap leaves behind two defenders to proceed towards the goal. Here come two flying legs from behind, one towards his groin, another towards his ankle. Mind of Diego Maradona senses it. He is used to this kind of flying legs from his childhood at Villa Fiorito. Still one leg catches his groin and thigh, Diego rolls down on the field, writhing in pain. Tough man he was, he slowly gets up and ready to take the free-kick.

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Those two flying legs can be of Huh-Jung Moo, the South Korean player who played “Taekwondo” instead of football in the game against Argentina during 1986 Mexico World cup group rounds. In a desperate attempt to stop the best magician with the ball, the South Koreans led by Huh-Jung Moo, took tactics generally seen inside a boxing ring or wrestling match. It was an iconic attempt that got folk-lore like status in footballing literature, as how to stop Diego Maradona. More like as how to play kung-fu on football pitch.

Those two flying legs can be of Andoni Goikoetxea, the butcher of Bilbao. Goiko, as he was popularly known, was known for his malicious attitude. Barcelona was playing the Basque club on 24th September, 1983. Barcelona was winning 3-0; Diego received a pass around midfield and was looking to progress into Bilbao’s half. Goiko advanced up from his position in defence, with the sole intention of taking Diego down. His stud-up challenge landed in the middle of Diego’s calf with a wooden sound, broke his outer ankle, and ruptured all the ligaments connected to outer ankle. Goiko received only a yellow card.

The two flying legs that attacked Diego Armando Maradona over the years has changed name of its owner. The owners of those two legs are Terry Fenwick (England, World Cup Quarter final, 1986), Toninho Cerezo (Brazil, 2nd Round , 1982 World Cup), Luis Reyna (Peru, World Cup Qualifier, 1985), Daniel Pasarella (Riverplate, Superclassico, 1981), Nils Schmaeler, (Stuttgart, 1989 UEF Cup Final), Iosif Rotariu (Romania, Group stage, 1990 World Cup) and many more footballers of the world who played with the magician on the same field, and went into self-denial mode by failing to accept the fact that Diego Maradona is painting a picture on the field with the ball, and they cannot stop the artwork. In today’s world where referee’s are more protective of the ball players, and world in general is more punishable to offenders like Claudio Gentile or  Andoni Goikoetxea, Diego Maradona would have been able to play a few more seasons, score a few more goals, win a few more accolades.  As we know it, “God” relishes the feeling of existence, and not bothered by the mere mundane things that generally excites the likes of Huh-Jung Moo.

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Here, we present a feature with some seen, unseen and very rare stills we collected chronologically which will portray the challenges faced by arguably best player in the world, during his playing days, when the world was so adamant to prove that we can destroy Diego Maradona. We are grateful to the vintage archives of El Gráfico, Clarin, Getty Image, BBC, NY Times and FIFA that helps to compile this personal favorite feature. Readers are encouraged to let us know if any other incident that you think deserves a place here.

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The indomitable legend from Buenos Aires had numerous ups and down in his life, but every time he fought back, stood taller, bigger than anybody until the day he faced his biggest enemy – Diego himself. Argentina was playing like one of the 1994 World Cup’s stronger teams and Diego Maradona playing like his old superstar self and in path to another probable conquest, the team and the football world were shocked to learn that Maradona had tested positive for a banned drug ephedrine after Argentina’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria in Foxboro, Boston.

There was no coming back. Diego couldn’t win this battle anymore, neither his national team.

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Into the intimidating world of Argentine hooligans

Football is a ‘beautiful game’ and Argentina has produced arguably the two best examples of such beauty in modern football. However, beneath this beauty lies a world full of violence, intimidation and cruelty. This article takes us through those alleys of Argentina. This article was first published in ‘Tiro: A football odyssey from Amazon to Alps’ , Rattis Books, UK, June 2016.

La Caminito is the little traditional walkway through the neighbourhood of La Boca – famous for its cobblestone streets, vividly colourful houses made of corrugated metal and passionate tango dancers. It was an afternoon of late-October 2011, with warm wind blowing along with bright sunlight. The wall murals, painted houses, blue and gold buses, art houses and scattered easels created a picturesque landscape of the old port city.

That afternoon, however, the cobblestoned streets were all hijacked by a sweaty, half-naked, chanting and howling crowd. They were all going to La Bombonera to support the beloved team from their neighbourhood. They were waving blue and gold flags and clothes while marching down the streets of Garboldi. The traffic of the city had surrendered to the football hysteria. As they approached the stadium they could see the long old walls of Bombonera. One could easily spot an abundance of firecrackers, alcohol and drugs inside the crowd, atop the open vehicles. The colourful walls of Caminito were re­verberating with the chant, ‘Boca mi vida es la alegría’ – ‘Boca you are the joy of my life’.

Boca Juniors were playing Atletico de Rafaela that day. They were un­beaten for their last 23 games and came to La Bombonera as the leader of Apertura 2011. Juan Roman Riquelme was missing from the first eleven due to a serious injury, so were Lucas Viatri and Dario Cvitanich. Bombonera was full as always, decorated with incessantly screaming fans, smoke bombs, gi­ant blue and yellow flags, and countless swirling ribbons and ticker tapes. It was a convincing 3–1 win for the home side as their young forward, Nicolas Blandi scored a brace. Surprisingly, the joy of victory was tempered by the apprehension of a civil war among the fans. The gallery was divided on that fateful day. Even more, tension was building up off the field among the Boca fans which could overshadow the resounding victory of the ‘Xeneizes’ (Boca is also known as ‘Xeneizes’ as it was formed initially by Italian immigrants, mostly of Genoese origin). Behind the vibrant colours and celebration, there was a hint of terror looming large.

Mauro Martin was present there proudly wearing his famous fisherman hat that had ‘Boca Juniors Una Passion’ stitched on it. The tattoo on his hand flashed in the bright sunlight. It was of his only son Blas Giunta, named after one of the Boca idols of his childhood. The strongly built man was the su­preme leader of ‘La Doce’, Boca’s most organised, passionate and notorious fan group. They occupied the famous North Terrace of the gallery, which they had been occupying for the last 50 years. The South side was led by the man who was known for his white hair and brutality. He was Rafael Di Zeo, former boss of ‘La Doce’ and as well as of Mauro Martin, who had just come back from prison and had returned with 2,000 followers surrounding him to reclaim his lost cathedral. The game of thrones was about to begin, where bullets, bloodshed and betrayal were just another facet of life.

Welcome to La Bombonera; welcome to the intimidating world of Argentine hooligans.

Belying the fears, nothing went wrong that afternoon. However, beneath the vibrant atmosphere of Albiceleste football, everything was functioning improperly. Barra Brava, as they are called in South America, are groups of organised football fans of respective clubs – a culture that is well prevalent all over South America, and widespread in Argentina. They sing passionately, chant fanatically and play drums throughout the games. The city of Buenos Aires, in particular, boasts the highest concentration of football clubs in the world with more than twenty teams who call Buenos Aires their home with a fanatically passionate fan base supporting each of them. Football is a social identity here, an emblem of pride and glory. The ‘beautiful game’ is the sole motivation for people living in the slums of Buenos Aires. Amidst poverty and poor living conditions, football is something they desperately cling on to.

Belying the fears, nothing went wrong that afternoon. However, beneath the vibrant atmosphere of Albiceleste football, everything was functioning improperly. Barra Brava, as they are called in South America, are groups of organised football fans of respective clubs – a culture that is well prevalent all over South America, and widespread in Argentina. They sing passionately, chant fanatically and play drums throughout the games. The city of Buenos Aires, in particular, boasts the highest concentration of football clubs in the world with more than twenty teams who call Buenos Aires their home with a fanatically passionate fan base supporting each of them. Football is a social identity here, an emblem of pride and glory. The ‘beautiful game’ is the sole motivation for people living in the slums of Buenos Aires. Amidst poverty and poor living conditions, football is something they desperately cling on to.

The ultra culture in Argentina is a little different from what we are used to see in Europe. Like the European Ultras, Barras Bravas also have a genuine in­clination towards organisation, but are largely dominated by neighbourhood sentiments. The chants in Europe are mostly short, powerful and aggressive. In Argentina they are longer in duration, lower in aggression, but extremely melodious. However, what sets them a class apart from all their counterparts is the degree of violence among the rival factions coupled with strong political motives and financial exploitation. The style of hooliganism and fan violence in Argentina is as idiosyncratic in nature as their unique style of football. ‘La Barra Brava’, which literally means ‘fierce opponents’, imposes a strong hierarchical organisation that controls the local football scenes of Argentina to a great extent. Crime, extortion, manipulation, drugs, gang wars, deaths are few of the traits injected by the hooligan culture. Imagining an organised band of thugs running a mini mafia organisation behind the pulsating col­ours of football – could give you a strong sense about how the gangs operate. However, as they say, you probably never experience the same unless you live in that intimidating world.

Rafael Di Zeo (middle)– after he was released from prison [Source: Taringa]
Rafael Di Zeo (middle)– after he was released from prison [Source: Taringa]

Dale, dale, Bo! Dale, dale, Bo! Dale, dale, Bo! Bo-ca! Let’s go, Boca!’ ‘Bombonera’ was brimming with 40,000 fanatics. They were all dressed up in blue and gold – tapping, dancing and screaming. When Di Zeo entered the Bombonera, he was there to exhibit his power to reclaim his position. He continuously sang from the stand to support his team, and so did his loyal followers around him. On the other side, Mauro Martin was not ready to lose his sovereignty either. There were continuous vows of vengeance exchanged between the two factions.

‘Oh lele, oh lala, we are going to kill all the traitors’, Di Zeo chanted fol­lowed by some equally offensive remarks from the other terrace.

The history of the rivalry goes a long way back. Di Zeo took the power of ‘La Doce’ (The twelfth Man) from Jose Barrita, alias ‘Grandpa’ in 1994. Earlier, in the 1960s and 1970s, the nature of the Barras in Argentina was different. Initially, it was started with clubs allowing the Barras free entrance to the games and giving away free shirts and other merchandise to them, while they needed their votes to stay in power in the club. However, as the ‘Barras’ ex­erted more and more influence on the club’s financial matters, their demands escalated gradually. ‘Grandpa’ was one of the pioneers to start selling illegal drugs in the 1980s and gave La Doce a more entrepreneurial dimension with a new facet of terror and ambushes. After Grandpa’s demise, Rafael, along with his brother Fernando Di Zeo, raised the activities of the organisation even more. As time passed, La Doce became more violent, and the Di Zeo brothers led several fights and riots against rival hooligans and the police. In 2005, Di Zeo was sentenced to four years of imprisonment for aggravated op­pression using weapons during a 1999 game against Chacarita Juniors, where he attacked rival fans violently and left them injured. Not only that, he was also convicted with possible links with Mario Segovia, ‘the king of ephed­rine’. This was the time when Buenos Aires saw the rise of Mauro Martin. He, along with Maximiliano Mazzaro, used to be the chief commandants of Di Zeo brothers. Martin joined the gang as a passionate fan, who screamed through the entire game, jumped to every beat of the drums. Mauro came closer to Rafael when he gave boxing lessons to the chief of the La Doce at Club Leopardi, and the bond gradually became stronger. He took charge of La Doce immediately after Rafael was sent behind bars in 2007, winning a fight against Falcignio Alexander at Porto Alegre, just before a phenomenal performance of Juan Roman Riquelme against Gremio in Copa Libertadores final. The new chief of Bombonera promptly revealed to the newspaper Ole: ‘My friendship with Rafa goes beyond the ground. We are friends, but today I sweep the management.’’

The saga of betrayal took a new turn when Mauro refused to give up lead­ership when Rafael was released on parole. No major clash happened after the game against Atletico de Rafaela, but that was only the beginning. The brutality showed its true colour after a few months. On 25 August 2012, Mauro Martín was attacked by the rival faction, led by Rafael, as they were stopped by police 21 kilometres away from Rosario on Santa Fe motorway. Martin was shot, which left him with a perforated intestine. He survived, but Rafael Di Zeo announced his long-awaited return loudly.

Mauro Martín was attacked by the rival faction, led by Rafael, as they were stopped by police 21 kilometres away from Rosario on Santa Fe motorway. Martin was shot, which left him with a perforated intestine. He survived, but Rafael Di Zeo announced his long-awaited return loudly.

The hostility is not only confined to the neighbourhood of Boca. It’s eve­rywhere – in every neighbourhood, every slum, and every club. The opera­tions are well planned, the violence is well executed and most importantly there is a heavy amount of money involved. Every Barra has been backed by top individuals of their respective clubs or by one of the political parties. This is an ugly side of the story for a premier football nation like Argentina that has gifted talents like Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi to the world. Diego him­self maintained a very close relation with Rafael and his brother Fernando. In an interview with BBC, Maradona affirmed,

“My relationship with the guys is excellent. We get together through their songs, through the passion for the colours of our team… then they go and make their mistakes and I do mine, we certainly do not enter into an association of crime, that’s not my style.” 2

In return, Rafael made his testimonial match at the Bombonera unforget­table – ‘The match stopped because we let off fireworks. And Diego became all emotional, he started crying. Then he walked up to where we were and thanked us. That was his surprise. He will never forget it.’3

The counter organisation of Boca’s La Doce is known as Los Borrachos del Tablón aka ’the drunkards of the terrace’ – the hooligan gang of River Plate, Boca’s eternal rival. This gang became the most feared gang of Argentina dur­ing the early 2000s and shared similar history of bloodshed like La Doce.

One of the vilest incidents of carnage happened just before the midnight of 7 August 2007, when a River fan named Martin Gonzalo Acro was coming home from his boxing class in Villa Urquiza neighbourhood. To his utter sur­prise, a dark blue Fiat Uno and a white Renault Express stopped by him, and out came five gunmen from the vehicles. They shot the helpless Gonzalo on the thigh, left him on the ground and then shot him twice in the head to kill him. It was revealed later that the homicide was executed by the infamous ‘Shlenker brothers as part of their power struggle against Adrian Rousseau for the firm. Unfortunately, Gonzalo was a friend of Adrian and had to pay the price.

The Super Clasico has been always branded as one of the fiercest der­bies in the world. Fights, riots, suspensions and injuries have become regular occurrences on derby days. The members of the ‘Barras Bravas’ frequently climb through the iron fences, unzipping their pants and urinate on the rival fans. The Monumental, the home stadium of River Plate, is often found roar­ing with chants hurled towards their eternal rival –

Tell me Boca what happened in Mar del Plata,
What you did not have enough gas,
You could not keep up,
All those fat asses that think they are great,
They saw Los Borrachos and ran away.

Marcelo Gallardo coach of River Plate, center, leaves the field protected by riot police. [Source: Mashable]
Marcelo Gallardo coach of River Plate, center, leaves the field protected by riot police. [Source: Mashable]

The tension reached its peak when Boca fans allegedly sprayed an irritant (allegedly pepper spray) on the River players in the tunnel before they came out for the second half at La Bombonera stadium during a Copa Libertadores quarter-final in 2015. ‘I cannot see, I cannot see. I am burning. This is not a war!’, River defender Funes Mori exclaimed in pain.4 The match was aban­doned and four River players were hospitalised.

When these two evil forces clash for an ill-fated face off, the history of blood, violence and civil riots rumbles at every corner of Buenos Aires. The most tragic incident of Argentine football history took place on an ill-fated eve of Super Clasico on 23 June 1968, at the Monumental when 71 Boca support­ers were crushed to death on the dim-lit stairwell in front of gate no. twelve.

Unlike Hillsborough, the justice for the tragedy was never served. Some think the disaster was executed as an outcome of a conflict between the police and Boca’s Barras Bravas. Alarmingly, nothing has changed after that. The case was closed next year and has not been reopened since.

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The legacy of blood and death still continues at its peak. On the fateful day in 2011, when River Plate was relegated for the first time in their 110 years of history after a 1–1 draw with Belgrano, huge riots broke out both inside the Monumental as well as outside. The violence was predicted. More than 2,000 policemen were deployed on duty with water cannon, tear gas and rub­ber bullets. Helicopters hovered over the Monumental during the match. The mayhem broke out after the final whistle and the northern suburb of Nunez transformed to a war zone between police force and Borrachos del Tablón, leaving nearly 100 injured.

Supporters of River Plate react after the team was relegated to second division after the Argentina's Promotion football match against Belgrano, at Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires, on June 26, 2011. Argentine giants River Plate has been relegated to second division for the first time in its history after being beaten 2-0 by Belgrano in the first leg of their play-off on Wednesday and tying 1-1 in the second leg match today. On the other hand Belgrano will play in first division next season. AFP PHOTO/Alejandro PAGNI (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of River Plate react after the team was relegated to second division after the Argentina’s Promotion football match against Belgrano, at Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires, on June 26, 2011. Argentine giants River Plate has been relegated to second division for the first time in its history after being beaten 2-0 by Belgrano in the first leg of their play-off on Wednesday and tying 1-1 in the second leg match today. On the other hand Belgrano will play in first division next season. AFP PHOTO/Alejandro PAGNI (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images)

So, how do these big gangs function so efficiently? The gangs are mostly divided into three tiers. At the top echelon, are a few leaders who strategise business, plan the attacks, make the deals and engage with the influential people. They essentially rule the organisation through the power of force and astronomical wealth. At the bottom they have their passionate and loyal fan-base that supports the club and their respective Barra Brava in every possible circumstance. They are given free match tickets, beer and drugs, and asked to chant for the club during the game. The middle tier is the most dangerous and violent in nature. These are the people who execute the violence, show mus­cle power, arm themselves with weapons, drive the mob and often harbour the ambition of leading a Barra Brava. There is a culture in Argentina that dic­tates the bigger clubs to keep a sense of engagement with the community and neighbourhood. The Barras Bravas are definitely a great option to facilitate this communication as most of the members are recruited from the localities. Other than that, they play a major role in electoral campaigns and are heavily linked with the political parties. Most of the members support their clubs dur­ing the weekend games and work for the political parties otherwise.

As an outcome a huge amount of free tickets is being distributed among them. Most of the leaders use those to sell in the black market and earn mas­sive incentives. Another big chunk of the earnings comes through the park­ing lot ticketing, ‘trapitos’ or informal valets and food outlets in the stadium. They have essentially created a monopoly on every transaction being made in and around their home stadium. Every merchandise that is sold, every sta­dium tour that is booked or any local event that is organised by the club – a significantly large share goes directly to the house of Barra Brava. According to a report of the New York Times5, one major Barra firm can earn monthly up to 300,000 pesos which is equivalent to about $70,000. Inevitably, where there is black money, there will be crime. The financial exploits have created major rival factions within a gang just like the mafia organisations, victimis­ing the football infrastructure and common people. On 26 November 2014, just two days before the second leg of River’s Copa Sudamericana semi-final at home to Boca Juniors, nearly 100 hooligans of a dissident faction of Los Borrachos del Tablón, armed with sticks and knives, rampaged the coffee bar at Monumental stadium and launched a fierce attack on the ruling gang. The seven-minute operation left three men severely wounded and caused havoc and mayhem.

According to a report of the New York Times5, one major Barra firm can earn monthly up to 300,000 pesos which is equivalent to about $70,000. Inevitably, where there is black money, there will be crime.

‘Where is he? We are going to kill him’, a thug was heard shouting while hitting people inside bar.6 People are up for killing a life and chasing a human like a hunting dog, perhaps on a minor dispute related to selling tickets of the high voltage game. Buenos Aires cultivates her own set of dark history hidden beneath the fairy-tale of Carlos Tevez.

Argentina probably is among the very few nations in the world where the hooligan firms are so heavily involved in the clubs’ activities. They have significantly high degree of influence on a player’s transfer, career, standing in the team and lifestyle. This happens even inside the so called biggest names of world football – Independiente, Boca Juniors, River Plate, San Lorenzo or Huracan. Back in 1993, the then River manager and Argentina’s World Cup winning captain, Daniel Passarella along with three other club executives were attacked by four hooligans armed with sharp knives when the team was resting inside the hotel El Mirador, before the pre-season game against San Lorenzo at Mar del Plata. The assailants were hiding near the bridge that divides the town, disguised as fishermen, and broke into the inn when the training got over.

Miguel Alejandro Sandokan put a knife on the face of ‘El Kaiser’ and yelled, ‘Passarella mother-fucker, puts Comizzo.’7 Sandokan was a famous and notorious leader of Los Borrachos del Tablón and evidently had belonged to the camp of Angel Comizzo, the River shot-stopper who had maintained a huge feud with the manager.

Jose Yudica, one of the finest managers of his generation, was also given similar treatment by the Bicho gang (The Bugs) of Argentinos Juniors in 1992. Yudica was the first Argentine manager to win three national league titles with three different clubs and had previously led Juniors to their solitary Copa Libertadores success back in 1985. The season was not going well for the Juniors; they were languishing at the bottom of the league table. The ugly con­frontation with the Barra Brava started when twenty odd hooligans hounded him outside La Paternal after a sweaty training session.

He replied to the mob, ‘I am the manager and you belong in the stands’, and started walking back.8

The situation turned violent within a second. The notorious gang started assaulting the old man who had given them national and international suc­cess. Joseph, the young son of the manager who was an assistant, was at­tacked viciously with kicks and punches. Having no other option, the helpless father pulled out his .22 calibre revolver and fired a shot in the air. Yudica later said that his son was almost killed on that day. That bullet saved their lives that afternoon. The management did not take any action; the goons were never identified. That same night, he resigned and never stepped back on the premises where he had celebrated his glory days.

Graphic illustration of Jose Yudica incident (Source: Bitchoscolorados.com)
Graphic illustration of Jose Yudica incident (Source: Bitchoscolorados.com)

Hugo Gatti, Boca’s charismatic goalkeeper and one of the finest in their history, was no exception. Gatti was intimidated by the Barra Brava to the ex­tent that he eventually moved out of the club where he had served for more than a decade. It is a fact that ‘El Loco’ was experiencing a nervous time on the pitch making some unforced errors and bloopers that did cost few critical points to the Buenos Aires giants, but the real reason was different. 1987 was an important year for Buenos Aires. A major electoral battle was settled in September for the designation of the Governor of the province of Buenos Aires between President Raul Alfonsin and Peronist Justicialist politi­cian, Antonio Cafiero. Incidentally, Cafiero was a fanatical Boca fan and very close to the Boca President. In 1996, in an interview with La Voz, Cafiero said that the song that excited him the most was: ‘Many times I was in prison / and often cried for you / I want it to Boca / I wear it in the heart.’9 When it was looking like an easy sweep for him, UCR (Union Civica Radical) played the ultimate trick of appointing another fan favourite Gatti as their ambassador. He was spotted campaigning for the presidential candidate in the premises of Bombonera. However, this did not go too well for him. The radical gangs started insulting him.

‘… borom bom bom bom bom … … Go back Gatti, you are a thief…’1°, the galley shouted aloud every time he touched the ball. The scream went louder whenever he did a mistake.

The situation went from bad to worse for him once Cafiero won the elec­tion and eventually he had to leave the club the next year. The political parties and the hooligans’ top echelons are so entangled, that every movement of the Barra is controlled by the political leaders. There is very little or nothing that has been done to counter this organised business of crime surrounding the ‘beautiful game’. Authorities mostly ignore the trivial crimes; convicts are soon released on bail or the prosecutions go on for ages. It’s because neither the club authorities nor the statesmen want the organisations to be ceased. The stakes are too high. The Barras Bravas are the most critical component to hold on to power. This is the long-standing problem which nobody actu­ally wants to address. If someone dares to go against them, the outcomes are not pleasant.

One member of CA Independiente found facing the cops [Source: infobae.com]
One member of CA Independiente found facing the cops [Source: infobae.com]

When Javier Cantero was elected as president of CA Independiente in December 2011, he took an initiative to put a halt to the finance and support given to the club’s violent ultra-band La Barra del Rojo, led by the legendary Bebote ‘Big Baby’ Alvarez Cantero, and immediately became a target of the hooligans. Independiente’s vice-president, Claudio Keblaitis and members of his family received death threats straightaway. Uncountable protests and slurs had been directed towards Cantero. The situation went out of control when one of the employees was threatened claiming a bomb was about to explode in a nearby school with 1400 students.

‘If they do not return the flags, we will make them fly’, the hooligans were reported to have said.11

Though fortunately the bomb squad could not find any explosive, the state of intimidation remained intact.

However, Franco Nieto was not fortunate enough. He was the former captain of the Rosario based third division club Tiro Federal. On 5 December 2014, they faced their local rival Chacarita Juniors in the town of Aimogasta, in northwest Argentina. The ill-fated Argentine was involved in a brawl that resulted in the game being suspended fifteen minutes from final whistle with a score-line of 3–1 in the favour of Tiro. The referee had shown the red card to eight players for fighting, five of Chacarita and three of Tiro. Soon the vio­lence had transmitted to the stand and took the form of a small civil riot. The 33-year-old was in a hurry to go home. He had his family visiting the game – his beautiful wife and 1-year-old baby. A three-man-gang, possibly possessed by a high dosage of drugs, attacked him in the parking lot. After initial kick­ing and punching, a brutal strike with a brick on his head proved to be fatal.

A fan of Argentine soccer team Boca Juniors confronts police during riots after celebrations of Boca Juniors Fan Day in downtown Buenos Aires December 12, 2013. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci (ARGENTINA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER CIVIL UNREST) - RTX16G4S
A fan of Argentine soccer team Boca Juniors confronts police during riots after celebrations of Boca Juniors Fan Day in downtown Buenos Aires December 12, 2013. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci (ARGENTINA – Tags: SPORT SOCCER CIVIL UNREST) – RTX16G4S

And this was not a solitary incident. That very same year no fewer than 14 people had died before the unfortunate incident of Franco Nieto in football-related violence in Argentina. The organisation Salvemos al Futbol (Let’s save football) counted a list of 310 football-related deaths since 1922, out of them 116 deaths taking place in the current century. The exponentially inclined death-toll curve is looming large over the future of Argentine football.

The history of blood and violence has been so deep-rooted in the society and culture of Argentina that they are hard to keep apart. This is a country that carries the unsurmountable memories of the ‘Guerra Sucia’ (Dirty War) where military forces and right-wing state sponsored militants killed thou­sands of left-wing guerrillas and socialists in the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, it was no surprise that the culture of violence soon got entangled with the other major social identity of the Argentines – football. The politics of ballet-box and chest-thumping had motivated the clubs and neighbourhoods to organise their powerful gangs. Unfortunately, a large section of the people take pride and seek glory in the atrocities and display of power of the Barras Bravas. Being in a society that is victimised by state-sponsored oppression and police atrocities for a long time, the commoners also pursue a victory against the state and police through the riots organised by the hooligans.

The culture of violence has been so glamourised in the past that it has become a demon today. The violence is perpetrated by the people who are deeply involved with the club or political parties. The government or the AFA – none of them had ever treated the situation as an emergency. The lack of political courage and conviction has been always extremely evident.

Do not throw the corpses on our doorstep

One of the members of AFA once even said that, ‘Do not throw the corpses on our doorstep.’12 Yes, the solution was that simple for them. One simple statement had so comically and cynically reflected the current may­hem of Argentine football. Raul Gamez, the president of Velez Sarsfield, in an interview at the club’s El Fortin ground stated his grave concern on the situation and doubted that Argentina would ever be able to eradicate the in­timidating world of vandalism.

‘Here the battle is lost,’ the president accepted.’3

We all know that the football ecosystem in Argentina lies on a bed of vio­lence and corruption. The resounding atmosphere and passion of the Super Clasico has been able to cover up to the outside world the actual state of things. Rafael Di Zeo still controls La Doce. He still has his finger on the trig­ger. Perhaps, somewhere else another bullet is waiting for him. This is an endless tale of terror.

When Rafael stepped into the stadium on that night he knew he had a battle to fight. A battle of power, wealth and bullet. He danced with every goals Boca scored that night. He chanted ‘Oh dale dale Bo’ with 40,000-odd hysteric crowd. The crowd goes fanatic with every goal, every win. They are in a complete state of oblivion about the national crisis their country is in. They are dancing on the beats, celebrating with the fire crackers. The game is long over. The resonating sound of drums is slowly fading away. They are going back home through the colourful alleys of La Caminito leaving behind the corpses of their friends and foes, every time.

Feature Image Source: Financial Times. Photographer: Natacha Pisarenko

References:

1. Grabia, 2007, ‘Soy amigo de Rafa, pero a La Doce la manejo yo’.
2. BBC, 2002, ‘Argentine hooligans revere Maradona’.
3. Ibid.
4. BBC, 2015, ‘Boca Juniors v River Plate: Copa Libertadores tie abandoned’.
5. Barrionuevo & Newbery, 2011, ‘In Argentina, Violence Is Part of the Soccer Culture’.
6. Castilla, 2014, ‘Otra pelea dentro de la barra brava instaló el terror en el Monumental’.
7. Clarin, 2011, ‘Passarella y Yudica, dos que también se enfrentaron con los barras’.
8. Ibid.
9. La Voz, 2014, ‘Cafiero, fanático de Boca, reveló que Perón era xeneize’.
10. See, ‘[Retro] [1987] Barra Brava vs Loco Gatti: Communidad Club Atlético Boca Juniors’.
11. The Argentina Independent, 2012, ‘Bomb Threat at a School Near Independiente Football Club’.
12. Wade, 2011, ‘Death and violence scar the Argentine game’.
13. Gowar, 2015, ‘Interview-Soccer-Argentina losing hooliganism battle – Velez chief’.